Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

February 6, 2000

Isaiah 38:9-13, 16-20; Romans 14:5-12

Reading through an I.U. journal over lunch the other day, I came across an advertisement from the Indiana University Foundation with the arresting question: "ARE YOU PLANNING TO LIVE FOREVER?" Well, I thought to myself, I can't say that I am. But can I say that I'm not? The ad, however, said "YOU CAN"--live forever, that is. "With the right planning." With a will you can live on through your favorite I.U. program. [RESEARCH & CREATIVE ACTIVITY, Vol. XXI, No. 1, April 1998, page 37]. That is one way of dealing with the reality of human mortality.

Two Sundays ago I flew down to Tampa, Florida, for the second of four gatherings of this year's Pastor-Theologian Program, sponsored by the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. Most of these are gatherings at which about a dozen of us pastor-theologians get together to discuss papers and books we have read as well as drafts of the papers each of us is preparing as our project for this year. Last year our gatherings focused on issues in biblical authority and interpretation. This year our focus is on eschatology. Eschatology has to do with "end times," or with the Christian understanding of the end and culmination of the world as we know it. So death, mortality, and human finitude are part of this year's agenda.

The topic of eschatology was apparently chosen as a way of participating in larger theological discussions that are taking place regarding the relationship of science and religion. The reason for this, I gather, is that it is becoming increasingly apparent from a scientific perspective that what we regard as the world of God's creation will some day come to an end. There are various ways to view this end. According to the latest cosmological theories, the universe will ultimately either contract and collapse in upon itself or else continue to expand indefinitely. In the one case everything will be compacted beyond recognition, in the other case a slow "heat death" will result as the stars all burn up, burn out, and die. In either case, no life will remain.

Long before that happens, however, any one of a multitude of other events may--indeed, will--bring an end to life on earth if any life even remains by the time they happen. The possibilities include impact with an asteroid or comet, the dying out of our own sun, or the collision of two relatively nearby neutron stars. In other words, from a scientific point of view, some day planet earth will surely be destroyed. Before then, even if we do not destroy ourselves, we may become either ice or toast.

As our discussions in this year's Pastor-Theologian Program have proceeded through two gatherings, it does not appear that any of us has been particularly shaken in our faith by this prospect of eventual planetary demise. Even the prospect that our entire universe will some day end does not have us terribly worried. Perhaps we should be, but it is so far off in the future that it hardly seems real. What does seem real is the fact that each of us is mortal, that we and all whom we love will die.

It may be, however, that at a deeper psychological level all of us are also affected by the knowledge that some day our world will come to an end. Certainly the movies have capitalized upon the prospect of planetary demise. The recent box office hit "Armageddon" entertained the threat of asteroid collision, and the previews are now promoting a film soon to premier called "Life after Earth". In the movies, however, humankind always manages to find a way to save itself from ultimate and final disaster, and--though I do not know how it ends--I'll wager anything the humans win out in "Life after Earth.". It is as if we are willing to entertain the threat of death, but only so long as we can believe that the threat can be overcome. We imagine the possibility of death in order to deny it. "Are you planning to live forever?" "You can," the Foundation ad assures us. You can live on through your favorite Indiana University program.

What the ad does not tell us is that some day Indiana University will be gone. Some day Bloomington will no longer exist. Some day Indiana will be off the map. God help us that we not commit nuclear holocaust or ecological suicide. Even so, nothing will last forever. The heavens and this earth will pass away. The bottom line in all of this is not just that some day each of us is going to die. The bottom line is that there is no way any of us can insure any permanently enduring significance for ourselves.

The point to this brief review of the human prospect is not to push us into despair, but to heighten the question, How are we, then, to live? How are we to live in the face of the knowledge of the end? How are we to live knowing that we will die? How are we to live knowing that all things and all persons we love and cherish will also die? Samuel Johnson wrote to Boswell, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully." When we human beings know that life is finite, that we do not have "forever," what does it do for us?

The strange thing is that it is not clear. At some level, all human beings know that they are going to die. But we do not all deal with this knowledge in the same way. I am reminded of the cartoon of the doomsday prophet carrying the sign, "The end is at hand--so you better shape up!" Others hear the same message and respond, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" There are differences among individuals and there are differences among cultures in how we deal with the knowledge of our own finitude and death.

A couple weeks ago Nancy Barlow forwarded an e-mail from her brother reporting on how someone else, here known as "Woody," had tried to prepare himself for Y2K. "Woody . . .went a long way toward preparing himself for any eventuality. He stored food, water, gas, and other essentials. He also bought a shotgun and ammo, (about which his wife . . . commented, "if things get that bad, shoot me first"). But the major purchase was a new large generator. On Thursday, December 30, he fired up the generator and proceeded to burn out his furnace, computer, video, and refrigerator. It turned out that the voltage was too high," and that he may not have "turned off the line power before starting the thing up. At any rate, at that point he had a Y2K problem of his own doing, and it is probably a good thing that he had stored up all those supplies" [January 19, 2000, e-mail forwarded from Nancy's brother John].

This is a kind of parable about how some people deal with the realities of finitude and all sorts of possibilities including the prospect of the end. We try to stave off disaster. We prepare ourselves for the worst. We may even imagine ourselves engaged in a struggle or a battle against our neighbors. In the face of threats--real or imagined--to our own existence, we contemplate actions that are at odds with our basic values and commitments in life. And from this narrow, truncated, survival-at-all-costs perspective on life, we often precipitate our own undoing.

Theologian Douglas John Hall recently gave an address to a gathering of Presbyterians in which he suggested that we Christians have failed to speak to the fundamental anxiety of our age. He thinks this is perhaps "because of our great hesitancy to enter into the anxiety that shapes our own epoch: the meaninglessness and despair that Kierkegaard called a 'sickness unto death.'"

Hall went on to say:

Yet we must enter this darkness. For any convincing expression of 'salvation' has to be forged on the anvil of the peculiar damnation that is its negative backdrop. If for guilt one wants to offer forgiveness, one has to become consciously and articulately guilty with the guilty. If for death and destiny one wants to offer liberation, one has to enter the dark realms of mortality and oppression. And if for meaninglessness and despair one wants to offer a gospel of purpose and hope, one has to experience--in one's person, and in the corporate person of the church--the 'sickness unto death'" ["Confessing Christ in a Post-Christendom Context," address to the 1999 Covenant Conference, Convenant Network of Presbyterians, Atlanta, GA, November 5, 1999].

That is to say, whatever good news we Christians have to proclaim must address the particular form of anxiety that marks our culture. And for us to be able effectively to formulate and express that good news, we must identify with and experience ourselves the anxiety that permeates the lives of others. As Hall sees it, today's pervasive anxiety is not that of sin and guilt. He suggests that perhaps the Christian religion has put far too much emphasis upon sin. The most important word that Christians have to proclaim may not be the word of divine forgiveness, as important as that may be. Because the pervasive anxiety of our time has rather to do with meaningless, finitude, and death. And what is most needed in this context is a gospel of compassion and hope.

Another way to approach this is to ask, What is the basic human condition? If we answer that the basic human condition is sin, then we need a gospel that deals with the realities of sin. We need a gospel of judgment, forgiveness, and grace. But if we answer that the basic human condition is finitude, then we need a gospel that deals with the realities of human limits and mortality and creaturehood. It may not be a question of either-or, but it is a question of emphasis. And today it seems that the emphasis needs to be on the problem of meaninglessness in the face of human finitude. How are we to live and act with hope and purpose, given our own limitations and the limitations of others, in a world that we must increasingly acknowledge will not last forever?

Within this question there are at least two distinct questions. One has to do with how we are to relate to others, the other has to do with how we are to relate to ourselves. First, how are we to relate to others--other finite, mortal creatures like ourselves? If you hate the other, then I suppose you are going to want to get in as many licks as possible while you have the chance. You do not have forever, so you will want to do as much to destroy the other as quickly as you can. But if you love the other, what then?

Hall offers this perspective, based on his reading of the New Testament: "It is really quite surprising how often the world 'compassion' appears as the primary response of Jesus to human situations, both personal and collective. . . Compassion is evoked in Jesus, and in those whom Jesus calls, not by the recognition of human guilt, though it is certainly true that we are guilty . . . But Jesus' compassion arises in response to our finitude--that is, the strange admixture of possibility and impossibility that constitutes the being of the human.

As the gospels present him, Jesus conveys an astonishing empathy with the broken human beings whom he encounters; and it is only through this compassionate identification with their brokenness that he is able to become their healer" [ibid.].

Compassion is a core dimension of love, love that recognizes the brokenness and finitude we share, the strange admixture of possibility and impossibility that marks the human condition. Compassion does not call upon us to forgive others for being human so much as it calls upon us to accept others as being human. It calls upon us to feel with and for others out of the brokenness and finitude that we share with them. In our celebration of the Lord's Supper, we speak of Christ's body "broken" for us. This is the remembrance that Jesus shared our finitude, our limitations, our suffering, our dying and death. This is the testament of his solidarity with us in the human condition. This is the witness of his compassion for all sorts and conditions of human beings.

So the knowledge of our finitude may at least move us to compassion toward our neighbors. But how does this knowledge of our finitude affect us in relation to ourselves? Again, there may be no single answer to this question, but it seems to me that one thing most of us seek for ourselves is a sense of integrity, or wholeness, or completion. Eric Erikson, in his developmental psychology, identified integration and integrity of human personality as the major challenge of mature adult life. A sense of integrity depends upon a sense of a life well-lived, given the limitations and the potentials of one's existence. It requires a coming to terms and acceptance of what one has been able to be and do, given that "strange admixture of possibility and impossibility" that constitutes one's being human. It is a conviction that one has "fought the good fight." It is an affirmation of meaningfulness in light of the context in which one's life has been lived.

Both compassion toward others and integrity in oneself are responses to the human condition of finitude, mortality, and creaturehood. These are modes by which we accept and affirm others and ourselves as finite human beings. The cynic or the skeptic might say that these are merely means by which we defend ourselves from the ultimate meaninglessness of our existence. What does it really matter, if we are all headed for final destruction? Nothing lasts forever, so why bother?

But the person who is compassionate will respond that he could not bear to live in a world that is unfeeling and uncaring, indeed, that it is through compassion that the fullness and depth of life's riches are to be experienced and enjoyed. And the person of integrity will respond that she could not live with herself if she were untrue or unfaithful to those persons and values and causes in relation to which her life is constituted as a meaningful whole, indeed, that apart from integrity all of life's benefits and rewards would hardly seem real and worthwhile.

In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The meaning of life is not hidden at the end of our journey. It is not the prize at the end of the rainbow. It is not the answer that is buried in the back of the book. What we find of ultimate value and meaning in life is somehow available to us now, or we could hardly know to hope for it at all. Which is to say, in the words of Jesus, "the kingdom of God is at hand."

In our text this morning from Romans, Paul emphasizes that God is the one with whom we have ultimately to do: "each of us will be accountable to God," he says. He says that by way of telling the Roman Christians that they are not to be in the business of passing final judgment upon one another. "Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?" According to Paul, we all ought to know better than that. The ultimate disposition of all things rests in the hands of God.

On the other hand, it is not as if we must wait until the final curtain has fallen before we know what the drama is all about. Throughout the Bible, the authors of the scriptures witness to the present experience and reality of God. In our Old Testament text words are attributed to King Hezekiah, who became sick and despairing of life but then recovered. "The living, the living, they thank you, as I do this day" he exclaims. The passage concludes with words of rejoicing, "we will sing to stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD" [Isaiah 38:19, 20].

"All the days of our lives." Not just when it's over. Not just at the end. Whatever there is to know and love of God is available to us now. What is of ultimate significance in human existence is not a puzzle to be worked out after all is said and done. Rather, in each day we are given access to the ultimate source and meaning of life. In each day God is present by the Spirit. In each day we may experience the goodness of life, the value of existence, the joy of creation. In each day we can give thanks!

One of the former pastors of this church, Joe Walker, is remembered for saying, "Life is so daily." The way I have heard others repeat it, it sounds like a counsel to take life as it comes, a day at a time, and not to worry about or try to plan too thoroughly for what might happen tomorrow. But "life is so daily" in another sense as well. It is precisely in today, not yesterday or tomorrow, that the fullness of life is given. In this sense we really do not need to look to tomorrow. After all, tomorrow may never come. So let's not miss the prospects and joys of life today, and let's not fail to share what we can of love and hope today.

The real challenge is to live all the days of our lives with awareness and openness to the present reality of God in our midst, with compassion toward our neighbors with whom we share the gift of life, and with an inner integrity that is borne of the faithful struggle to be and do whatever, by God's grace, we can be and do, within the limits of time and space and all that makes us human. We can be and do no more. We need be and do no more. Let us content ourselves to leave the rest in the hands of God. AMEN.